A gradual shift to ‘Living with COVID’ | Daily News

A gradual shift to ‘Living with COVID’

UN General Assembly in session.
UN General Assembly in session.

The Government’s relentless campaign against the COVID-19 pandemic continued this week even while some significant political developments took place, while both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa are travelling overseas to the United States and Italy respectively.

The pandemic continues to claim lives on a daily basis but the number of deaths has declined in recent days. On Monday, 135 deaths were recorded with the total number of deaths now exceeding 11,400. However it is too early to say whether the downwards trend in deaths will be sustained, experts say.

Authorities have noted that the demand for oxygen in hospitals - which serves as an indication of how unwell COVID-19 patients are - has also dropped. The demand for the gas, which at one time stood at a high of 140 tonnes per day, has decreased recently, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said.

When oxygen supplies were in need extra stocks were ordered from India, China and Singapore and these have been delivered, Minister Rambukwella said. As a result, the country now has adequate stocks of the gas, even if the demand increases subsequently, the Minister explained.

“It is also true that we do notice a small decrease in the number of daily cases and deaths. However, we cannot guarantee that it would continue with the same momentum,” Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath said. Therefore a return to ‘normality’ per se was not possible, he said.

In a related response, the Government extended the ‘lockdown’ imposed on the nation until September 21. Health authorities are urging the public to get vaccinated, wear masks and follow social distancing instructions as there still appears to be significant ongoing social interactions despite the lockdown.

Relax lockdown restrictions

However, it is clear that the Government also hopes to relax lockdown restrictions as soon as circumstances permit this. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also already directed officials in the COVID-19 Task Force to explore what restrictions could be eased if and when the lockdown is relaxed.

State Minister for COVID-19 Control Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle also indicated that a relaxation of the lockdown is on the cards. The four-week lockdown was more than enough to curtail the spread of the disease and there has been a decrease in COVID mortality and infections, the Minister said.

“I don’t think the country will be locked down after next Monday. The country should be reopened gradually, adopting to a new lifestyle with COVID while continuing health practices and the accelerated vaccination programme,” Minister Fernandopulle, who is a specialist community physician, said.

Foremost among the measures to be taken after the lockdown is relaxed is the re-opening of schools. The education sector, especially primary and secondary education has been hit hard by the pandemic. The functioning of schools has been disrupted intermittently since the pandemic began in early 2020. Sri Lanka is now among the 15 countries whose schools still remain closed. In South Asia, Bangladesh opened its schools last week.

Re-opening schools

In re-opening schools, priority will be given to pre-schools and schools in rural areas with less than 100 students first, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva who heads the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 said. Parents of children also should be vaccinated as much as possible before schools are re-opened, General Silva said.

With the aim of re-opening schools while having a minimum impact on students, the Government is also hoping to introduce a comprehensive vaccination programme for schoolchildren in the 12–19 year age group, possibly using the Pfizer vaccine, four million doses of which will be here next month. Many other countries have adopted a strategy of vaccinating schoolchildren aged 12-19.

The doctors’ main trade union, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has advised that any such vaccination programme should be implemented under close supervision. They have recommended that this vaccination be carried out only in hospital settings under supervision.

When the vaccination programme is implemented for schoolchildren, it is likely that priority will be accorded to children sitting for their Ordinary Level (O/L) and Advanced Level (A/L) examinations. Children with certain chronic illnesses will also be given the vaccine on a priority basis, officials said.

The vaccination programme for adults meanwhile continues to gather momentum. It is expected that the vaccination of adults who are 30 years of age or older will be completed by the end of the week. About 96 per cent of this population has been vaccinated, State Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana said.

Minister Jayasumana said a significant number of persons in the 20-29 year age group have shown a reluctance in getting the vaccine due to the reports being shared on social media that the vaccine affects fertility or sexual functions. These reports are completely baseless, Minister Prof. Jayasumana assured.

As the various agencies in the Government grappled with these COVID-19 related issues, several other events of political significance were also dominating the headlines and generating controversies that required clarification from time to time, due to contradictory reports emerging in the media.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa left for Italy to attend the G20 Interfaith Dialogue in Bologna. He addressed the Forum on Sunday. There was speculation that the Premier would be meeting Pope Francis during this visit. His office said that this was not so and the visit was restricted to Bologna.

Reports on social media had inaccurately suggested that Prime Minister Rajapaksa had sought an audience with Pope Francis to brief the Pope on the Easter Sunday terror attacks that occurred in April 2019. These concerns were subsequently repeated by the leaders of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka. However, the Pope is currently overseas and no such meeting would have been possible in any case.

In his speech to the forum, Prime Minister Rajapaksa appealed for global unity in the face of the COVID-19 crisis and emphasized the importance of vaccine availability for poorer nations. He also recalled the September 11 attacks and suggested that isolation of particular groups is not an answer.

“Reconciliation is a critical need of our time. Conflicts and escalating tensions are all too evident around us. Peace and stability come from healthy relationships with all who live in our countries, including those with whom we have deep disagreements,” Prime Minister Rajapaksa said.

UNGA

Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will travel to the United States to attend the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York which commences on September 21. This will be President Rajapaksa’s first address to the United Nations General Assembly since assuming office.

Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, Principal Advisor to the President Lalith Weeratunga and Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage will accompany the President during the visit. The President is also expected to hold bilateral discussions with several other leaders while in New York.

Responding to criticism of the President undertaking this visit, the President’s Media Division (PMD) noted that President Rajapaksa has decided to undertake the visit with the least number of delegates possible after taking into consideration the current economic and health situation in the country, the PMD said.

“Accordingly, this will be the smallest Sri Lankan delegation to attend the United Nations General Assembly in recent history,” the PMD said. First Lady Ioma Rajapaksa will join the visit at her own expense, officials said. This will also be the first overseas meeting attended by the President.

Meanwhile, the patriarch of the Rajapaksa family, Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa has been admitted to hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus. The 78-year-old veteran politician is convalescing at a private hospital in Colombo and his health is being closely monitored by doctors.

In a separate political development that was also seen as controversial by some, former State Minister for Money and Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reform, Ajith Nivard Cabraal was appointed as Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) with effect from Tuesday by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

This followed the resignation of CBSL Governor Professor W. D. Lakshman. The 80-year old Professor of Economics resigned six weeks short of his two-year term. Cabraal had previously held the post of Governor from 2006 to 2015 (nine years), during the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Cabraal, a National List member of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Finance State Minister who was nominated to Parliament following the General Election last year opted to resign his Seat in the legislature to take up the top post at the Central Bank for the second time in his career.

Cabraal’s National List seat in Parliament was filled by Jayantha Ketagoda. It will be recalled that Ketagoda resigned his seat previously to make way for Basil Rajapaksa’s return to Parliament. Subsequently, Basil Rajapaksa was sworn in as the Minister of Finance recently.

Opposition political parties have been critical of Cabraal’s appointment as CBSL Governor stating that a position that should free of all political bias is being politicised. However, there appears to be no legal impediment to the appointment which is made by the President, officials said.

Even with daily infections and deaths due to the pandemic still being significantly high, Sri Lanka is following the path of many countries such as UK and Singapore that have adopted the strategy of ‘Living with COVID’. This implies re-opening the country when a satisfactory level of vaccination has been reached.

Sri Lankans can therefore expect to return to relative normality in the coming months, quite possibly by the end of the year. However, it will remain the responsibility of the general public to continue to act in a manner that will enable the continuation of those freedoms well in to the next year.


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